Plain Packaging and the world’s ugliest colour

Cigarette packaging has come a long way since the introduction of the rugged and handsome ‘Marlboro Man’ of the 1950s. Aimed at promoting a smoking lifestyle by establishing an association between ‘manliness’ and lighting up a Marlboro cigarette, he was part of Marlboro’s campaign for almost half a century. Canadian tobacco packaging looks a lot different today than it did even a few years ago (with the introduction of graphic image warnings that make up 75% of principal display areas on the package), and the Canadian tobacco packaging of tomorrow will look even less sexy. 

On May 1, 2019, Health Canada announced the introduction of plain packaging for tobacco sold in this country, which prohibits the use of logos, unique font usage, custom layouts, and flashy colours. Essentially, there can be no distinguishing features on a package. The plain packaging rules come into effect at the manufacturer level as of November 9, 2019 and at the retailer level as of February 7, 2020. 

Packages will be a dark brown-green colour; the same colour adopted by the Australian government for plain packaging in 2012. Pantone 448C (for those with a swatch book handy) has been called ‘the world’s ugliest colour’ and CNN reported that consumers associate the colour with words like ‘dirty’, ‘tar’, and ‘death’. The colour even has its own Twitter handle (@Pantone448C) with knee-slappingly funny tweets: “#PlainPackaging is such an ugly term. I prefer #TastefullyBrown.” and “At least they’re not printing the brand names on me in Comic Sans. That’d just be adding insult to injury. #PlainPackaging”.

Plain packaging for a healthier tomorrow?

The aim of the legislation is to reduce the appeal of cigarette products through their main promotional vehicle: packaging. Tobacco advertising is all but banned in Canada, with limited exceptions (advertising in adult-only venues and through direct mail to named recipients), therefore packaging is a last-chance marketing opportunity to establish brand loyalty and promote differentiation between products.  

The tobacco industry has successfully delayed plain packaging legislation for a quarter of a century, as the legislation was first proposed in 1994 as a public health protection measure. Millions were spent to stop the government from implementing plain packaging. A Canadian and UK study published by the Cochrane Tobacco Addiction Group found that plain packaging “may reduce smoking prevalence and increase quit attempts”, positively influencing consumer behaviour. Smoking remains the number one cause of preventable premature death in Canada, killing half of all long term users and Health Canada reports that approximately 17 percent of Canadians 12 years of age and older use tobacco products. The plain packaging strategy aims to reduce Canadian tobacco usage by 5 percent by 2035. In a press release about the new legislation, The Honourable Ginette Petitpas Taylor, Canadian Minister of Health, stated: “The evidence is overwhelming that plain packaging is an effective way to drive down tobacco use, especially among young people.” 

Will it work to stop young people from buying cigarettes? Does packaging have that much power to persuade? Should cigarettes be the only focus of the plain packaging laws?  

The Globe and Mail reported that the use of vaping products (e-cigarette) use among young people is growing in Canada, which also contains addictive nicotine. The 2016-2017 Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey found that almost one quarter (23 percent) of grades 7-12 students surveyed tried a vaping product and most students who have tried a vaping product have also tried a cigarette. Research published in early 2018 by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, shows that those who use e-cigarettes are more likely to try traditional cigarettes, thereby introducing a whole new generation of young people to an addictive line of products; only the latter of which have stringent advertising and packaging laws. In 2018, Ontario was the first province to pass legislation allowing the producers of vaping products to promote their products. Ontario was set to ban the promotion of vaping products as of July 1, 2018, however the new Conservative government stopped the ban. Health promoters say that advertising normalizes these products to youth, who may be most susceptible to their messaging. 

Designing an Ugly Package 

Rarely (if ever!) is a graphic designer briefed to create an ‘ugly’ product, one that consumers won’t want to buy. This is what makes designing plain cigarette packaging truly unique. There are graphic and structural design regulations to ensure that nothing takes away from the intense health warning imagery. 

To ensure that plain packaging is as ugly as it needs to be, market research firm, GfK Bluemoon, was hired to determine how to design an unappealing package, in which the use of colour plays a significant role. Colour is used to influence human psychology in many aspects of daily life, including a particularly interesting case study about a company who wanted to reduce the amount of time employees were spending on breaks in the washrooms. Their solution? Paint the walls an unappealing green-brown colour (not unlike Pantone 448C), which solved the problem. Although many people don’t like Pantone 448C’s shade because of ‘associations with human waste’, others quite like the colour, including psychologist, Dr. Carolyn Mair of the London College of Fashion, who said that it’s “an earthy, muted, rich color, very much of nature”. Colour preferences are in the eye of the beholder, which makes relying on colour alone an unwise decision.

Furthermore, tobacco companies’ attempts to influence consumers through structural packaging design (such as beveled edges or any other attempt to make the physical package stand out), are also prohibited. The Globe and Mail reported that the structural design regulations of Canadian cigarette packaging makes our plain packaging rules the toughest in the world. While Australians have been sold plain packaged cigarettes since 2012 in ‘flip-top’ packages, Canadians will be sold cigarettes in ‘slide-and-shell’ packages, which allows for increased health warning size. ‘Purse packs’ (a slimmer design intended to appeal to women) will also be banned. 

Critics of Plain Packaging

Plain tobacco packaging was introduced into the Australian market in 2012 and for all intents and purposes, the legislation has failed. Five years after having passed the initial legislation, the decline in smoking rates has stalled, with the numbers suggesting that smoking rates have risen after accounting for the growth in population. 

Critics argue that branding helps consumers make informed choices and plain packaging does little to change consumer behaviour anyway. They believe that this legislation infringes on companies’ intellectual property (IP) rights, eliminating their ability to build trust and rapport with consumers, which has a ripple effect into other important allied industries to printing and packaging. In 2017, Forbes reported that IP-intensive products in the EU and US account for a massive 18.5% of the world’s total GDP. Approximately 88 million people are employed in trademark-intensive sectors and plain packaging jeopardizes IP rights. Furthermore, one outcome of plain packaging is the rise of the illegal tobacco market. When all products look the same and packaging doesn’t contain enough information to differentiate one from another, consumers rely on price alone, meaning some consumers turn to the cheaper, illicit market. This has proven true in Australia and independent reports found that illicit tobacco consumption increased by 14 percent five years after the introduction of plain packaging. 

Critics also argue that the government has not placed the same packaging stipulations on vaping or marijuana products as it has on cigarettes; in essence, communicating that it’s okay to smoke some products but not cigarettes, when all can be a detriment to public health. Furthermore, others argue that while smoking is bad for you, so is drinking in excess, eating fast food, and consuming a myriad of other products. One comment in a CBC news feature reads: “Why are alcoholic drinks not plastered with warnings of addiction, images of diseased livers, cancer, and other alcohol related diseases? Why doesn’t garbage food such as fast food, chips, pops, pastries have warnings of obesity and diabetes, with images of clogged arteries or heart disease? There are a great many things we can purchase legally that will harm us substantially over time. I just don’t understand the strict focus on smoking. Either warn/scare us about all the risks from all things, or nothing.”

Incredibly, it seems as though the majority of Canadians are critical of the plain packaging legislation. A study by Toronto-based Forum Research shows that 81 percent of consumers believe that branding is important because it enables consumers to distinguish important information from one company to another. Furthermore 74 percent of study respondents believed that tobacco companies should be allowed to brand their products and almost two-thirds of respondents (64 percent) said that plain packaging was a waste of government resources. 

Whether you’re for or against plain packaging legislation, packs of cigarettes will soon look a lot more boring and sickly. Only time will tell if this legislation will help Canadians become healthier, as well as whether or not plain packaging will expand to a greater number of consumer products. 



Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.